For more than 50 years, people’s ecological footprint has exceeded what the planet can regenerate. Humans use 1.56 times more than Earth’s biocapacity, according to a recent World Wildlife Fund report. That means it would take Earth about a year and a half to restore what people have used in a year. This overtaxing of nature affects all living things, and an average 68% decrease in the populations of over 20,000 monitored vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016 (as the 2020 World Wildlife report highlights), may speak to just how dire the situation is.
While human behavior has degraded natural spaces and likely provoked climate change and extinctions, people are taking action to stem the tide of the crisis by embracing zero-waste philosophies and promoting circular economy models. The future of sustainability lies in green efforts that champion new approaches to how people use and dispose of materials. Earning a degree such as a bachelor’s in sustainability can help prepare professionals to promote vital environmental initiatives.
Embracing a Zero-Waste Philosophy
The zero-waste philosophy strives to eliminate humanity’s ecological deficit with the planet. That means ending the overuse of natural resources, reducing consumption, and maximizing recycling. The philosophy also emphasizes the importance of designing products and using materials in ways that:
- Preserve their value
- Conserve natural resources
- Limit any impact on the environment
The goal of zero waste is not to generate any materials that simply get thrown away. Individuals and businesses following zero-waste principles adopt practices that promote sustainability by eliminating waste and creating products that, when discarded, become resources others can use.
The Five R’s of Zero Waste
Achieving zero waste involves embracing a set of key priorities often referred to as the five R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot, and recycle.
Single-use items such as packaging and disposable cups require a great deal of energy to produce and use natural resources in unsustainable ways. Nearly 100% of single-use plastic is made from virgin materials as opposed to recycled materials, according to a recent Minderoo Foundation report. These items:
- Pollute oceans
- Overwhelm landfills
- Contribute considerably to greenhouse gas emissions
Individuals and businesses must eliminate the demand for disposable items by refusing single-use materials. Individuals can also refuse plastic straws and utensils, plastic-wrapped produce, and paper towels.
Reducing consumption plays an integral role in working toward zero waste. Businesses and individuals can reduce unnecessary purchases, food waste, use of cleaners and chemicals, and energy consumption. This can limit the amount of waste going to landfills and the need for incineration, which can release harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
Reusing materials also helps achieve zero waste. This involves replacing disposable items and materials with ones that can be reused. Businesses and individuals can repurpose materials or items, as well as purchase reusable products ranging from bags to storage crates to coffee cups.
When trapped in landfills, organic waste produces methane — a harmful greenhouse gas. By composting, businesses and individuals can avoid creating methane, improve soil quality, reduce erosion, and eliminate the need for fertilizers. Composting everything from food waste to yard debris to shredded paper can result in a lighter carbon footprint.
Recycling serves as the last item in the hierarchy of zero waste. That’s because an item becomes a weaker version of itself each time it’s recycled, until it eventually ends up in a landfill. Nonetheless, when refusing, reducing, reusing, and rotting are not possible, the next-best option is recycling.
Daily Practices to Reduce One’s Carbon Footprint
To put the five R’s into practice, consider adopting the following daily practices that can reduce one’s carbon footprint:
- Switching out plastic grocery bags for canvas reusable ones
- Cutting back on transportation that isn’t public or that doesn’t involve carpooling
- Refusing single-use items such as plastic silverware, coffee cups and lids, and plastic produce bags
- Reusing glass containers for storage
- Repurposing food waste for gardening
- Skipping the dryer and hanging clothes up to dry
- Choosing paper-free options for bank transactions
Individuals’ purchasing habits impact the future of sustainability. Choosing to buy from businesses that use renewable materials, reduce their waste, and embrace other zero-waste initiatives encourages a shift toward a more sustainable circular economy.
A Sustainable Circular Economy
In recognition of their responsibility to protect the planet, many companies are seeking ways to operate with the environment in mind. Some have adopted circular economy business models, which reject unchecked consumption and wasteful systems.
The currently dominant linear business model involves taking resources, turning them into products, and disposing of them. Not only is this unsustainable, but it also leads to pollution. A circular model, however, seeks to create a loop in which resources are kept in circulation for as long as possible. This reduces people’s dependence on nonrenewable resources and minimizes waste.
Reimagining Consumers and Products in a Circular Economy
The circular economy reimagines the concept of a consumer. People in circular economies “lease” products and materials, which they eventually return for repurposing. Adidas, for instance, is testing out a new sneaker that uses one material and no glue. When purchasers finish using these shoes, they return them to the company instead of tossing them in the garbage. Adidas can then wash, melt, and remold the material into new shoes.
Additionally, in a circular economy, companies design products to last, using parts and components that can be recycled, repaired, or upgraded. The company Framework has recently launched a laptop that allows users to repair, replace, and upgrade all its components for a decade. Such designs can help reduce the millions of tons of electronic waste that get dumped in landfills every year.
Levi Straus has also started making circular products. Recognizing that most clothing gets thrown out after seven to 10 uses on average, the company has committed to designing long-lasting clothing that can be repaired, repurposed, or recycled. The outfitter has already explored renting select products and launched a clothing collection made entirely of recycled denim.
What Buying Green Looks Like
In addition to supporting businesses that have adopted circular economy business models, individuals can make other buying choices that support a sustainable future. Purchasing items grown or produced locally shortens the length of a supply chain. Imported food and other nonlocal foods travel significant distances that require the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, as well as energy and facilities for refrigeration. One should also consider an item’s packaging and harsh chemical content, opting for minimal or no packaging and nontoxic alternatives. Whenever possible, one should select items made from recycled materials as well.
Several specific ways to buy greener include:
- Buying in bulk when possible
- Cleaning with green eco-friendly products
- Choosing beauty products that don’t contain chemicals or petroleum
- Purchasing secondhand clothing or clothing made from recycled materials
- Eating whole foods and foods made from sustainable ingredients, avoiding ingredients that aren’t sustainable, such as conventional palm oil, whose production causes massive deforestation
Saving the planet requires getting everyone on board with sustainable practices. Therefore, people need to educate themselves about the:
- Environmental impact of the products they buy
- Environmental practices of the companies they support
- Habits they can adopt to lighten their ecological footprint
With this information in hand, individuals can make lifestyle choices aligned with their green values. They can also share knowledge with their friends, family, and community about what it takes to live more sustainably and encourage them to join sustainability efforts, such as working toward a zero-waste lifestyle.
This may involve:
- Asking one’s employer to adopt green practices, such as using energy-saving lightbulbs, doing business with green vendors, and investing in green energy and green office equipment
- Beginning a dialogue in one’s faith group about organizing a campaign to support climate action
- Starting a composting project in a local community garden
Using Civic Engagement to Push for a Sustainable Future
Civic engagement can help drive the changes needed to build a sustainable future. Calling on political and corporate leaders to invest heavily in sustainable systems, business models, and infrastructure can push the world toward policies that will lessen humanity’s environmental impact.
Individuals can write letters to government representatives and city officials in support of the adoption of green technologies, such as smart energy grids that work more efficiently and can generate renewable energy. People can also reach out to elected officials expressing support for:
- Cradle-to-cradle laws (requirements for businesses to reuse, repurpose, and recycle resources)
- Tax incentives for green business practices
- Measures to reduce greenhouse gasses
- Renewable energy investment (such as in wind and solar energy)
People can also join in public debates in support of green initiatives. Writing an open letter to the editor or posting on social media can bring attention to key sustainability issues. Additionally, voting for candidates who support green initiatives is key to getting laws passed that can safeguard the planet.
Help Create a More Sustainable World
Meaningful action toward sustainability and efforts such as the zero-waste movement and the drive toward circular economies have the power to save the planet. Skilled experts with knowledge of ecology, environmental science, social and cultural issues, and environmental law can play a critical role in promoting such efforts.
With three specialized tracks to choose from, Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sustainability can help prepare individuals with the knowledge needed to lead green initiatives that will determine the future of sustainability. Explore the program and start your journey toward a career in sustainability.